Do you really need a mentor?

Photo credit: bujiie, Creative Commons/Flickr

Photo credit: bujiie, Creative Commons/Flickr


You can’t read about professional development or entrepreneurship without coming across advice to find a mentor: someone who takes you under their wing and shows you the ropes. This person helps you answer questions, expand your network, and vouches for you when needed. In return, you demonstrate progress and enthusiasm, and help them as much as possible in your own way.

However, aside from the programs I participated in as a student—where we were given mentors to help us navigate certain projects or adjusting to school—I have never had a mentor as a professional. I have never had a wise, older person in my corner who I connect with on a regular basis to talk through problems.

And I think this is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, I see the benefit of having a mentor and I have people in my life who care about me and want me to be successful. But the truth is, I have never really had the desire to seek out one person to be my sounding board and long-term coach; it’s a lot of work on my end, on their end, and is a little too hierarchical for my taste. Instead, I prefer to connect with people when I have a problem I need help solving.

I do this because I believe that when you start from a place of wanting to solve a problem—instead of wanting to follow a particular person—you open more doors. People younger than you, older than you, people in different fields and professions, people in different communities, become problem solvers. You are also more deliberate and focused about what you need, which makes it much easier for people to actually help you (I am struggling with creating a strategy for X vs. I don’t know what I’m doing about anything).

For example, when I started crafting the vision and editorial calendar for Idealist Careers, I realized two things: 1. My role was shifting to include more editorial and content creation and 2. I had very little sense of what it meant to do those things effectively. So, in addition to reading more and doing more research, I reached out to people in editorial roles at startups, established companies, and people who were freelancers. I had specific questions and got exactly the help I needed while connecting with new professionals in my field.

In fact, if you look at formal mentoring programs for professionals or entrepreneurs—like those built into fellowship programs—you’ll see something similar: a mentor is often helping participants solve a specific problem over a finite amount of time.

So rather than looking for the one, maybe we should focus on cultivating networks of experts and supporters.

What do you think? Do you have a mentor?